In the era of “Pokémon Go,” immersive theater — a growing trend in Seattle — invites theatergoers to inhabit the world of the characters.
This summer, Seattle is awash in immersive theater. Instead of just filing through a lobby, finding their seats and waiting for the lights to dim, audiences are running around old industrial buildings or playing preshow croquet matches with actors.
At first glance, the phrase “immersive theater” might seem redundant. All theater is immersive, by definition: Unlike a book, the performance doesn’t end if you start feeling bored (unless you’re sitting in a convenient place to bolt up the aisle); unlike a movie, the actors can hear you laugh or gasp or shout. But lately, more and more companies seem to be making theater in nontraditional spaces and using the word “immersive” to describe them.
‘The Glass Menagerie’
Through Sept. 3 by The Williams Project at Cafe Nordo, 109 S. Main St., Seattle; $80 (800-838-3006 or thewilliamsproject.org).
‘Here Lies Love’
April 7-May 28, 2017, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. ; tickets from $75 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
“I find traditional theater, sitting in the dark and going home afterward, kind of boring and not social,” said Mark Siano, who co-wrote and directed “Twister Beach” this July with collaborator Opal Peachey. He thinks the trend toward immersive work scratches an itch to flee the screens we stare at all day and steep ourselves in another, more visceral world.
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In “Twister Beach,” a sex-farce riff on ’60 beach movies at Café Nordo, audience members participated in a limbo contest. And next spring, Seattle Repertory Theatre will mount a more elaborate version of theater-as-party with “Here Lies Love,” an immersive “poperetta” by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim that turns one of the Rep’s stages into a discothèque that tells the story of political diva Imelda Marcos, wife of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“When a show starts, there’s no freezing the moment,” Siano said. “There’s no ‘wait, I want to read about this on Wikipedia.’ ” Living in the digital world, he said, “is all stop and go, stop and go — but theater just barrels forward.” Immersive theater adds the extra ingredient of “sitting inside the world of the set, in the same world as the characters. It’s far more invigorating: body, mind and soul.”
Immersive theater can be invigorating — and also chilling.
In one alarming moment of “The Turn of the Screw,” an adaptation of Henry James’ gothic thriller at Seattle Immersive Theatre this summer, people sat on benches around the perimeter of a dim, spooky room, listening to a frightened Victorian governess who might have been confronting a malevolent ghost — or might’ve been losing her mind.
Even though the term “immersive” is newly popular, the concept isn’t new.
Now-defunct Seattle company Implied Violence used to make shows in apartments and industrial buildings (one featured jackhammers, a wall made of ice blocks and a flock of live chickens), and once set up a guerrilla boxing ring in a Pioneer Square alley where two company members beat each other bloody while glitter, feathers and goo rained down from windows above.
Belgian company Ontroerend Goed has visited Seattle with its unforgettably intense and intimate “The Smile Off Your Face,” which requires sitting in a wheelchair, being blindfolded, allowing your wrists to be bound and surrendering yourself to whatever Ontroerend Goed wants you to hear or see.
But several Seattle directors say the new popularity of immersive theater is directly linked to “Sleep No More,” an interactive riff on “Macbeth” set in a creepy, 1930s-era hotel — it’s become a New York tourist attraction.
“‘Sleep No More’ brought immersive work into vogue in popular culture,” said Caitlin Sullivan, artistic director of the Satori Group, which staged “We Remain Prepared” in June, where attendees explored a century-old, cathedral-like steam plant in Georgetown.
But, she added, the fad of calling performances “immersive” isn’t necessarily what’s driving the artists: “I think a lot of people are asking questions about what makes theater theater — how the stories we’re telling are different from TV. For me, it’s about time, space, duration and people being in the same room together.”
Plus, Sullivan pointed out, renting a traditional theater can be prohibitively expensive for up-and-coming companies — and the term “immersive” might attract fresh audiences from the Burning Man generation. “Maybe the term ‘immersive’ is about branding or marketing, or maybe it’s about trying to have an audience remain open,” she said. “I understand the desire to say, ‘we’re naming something in a way that tells you we’re going to do something differently than what you’re used to.’ ”
Lane Czaplinski, artistic director of On the Boards, suspects the heightened chatter around “immersive theater” isn’t about running away from screens, but about how screens have changed the way we relate to the rest of the world.
(Czaplinski has been mulling over immersive performance for a long time — he programmed a show by immersive-minded German choreographer Felix Ruckert back in 2003.)
“When I was growing up, the notion of a TV screen or proscenium stage was a flat proposition,” Czaplinski said. “With more sophisticated technology, people can go into the screen a little more, enter into a kind of territory they couldn’t have before.” Now people are looking for that in other mediums.
Ryan Purcell, who’s directing “Glass Menagerie” (through Sept. 3) — where audience members can sit around a table and eat dinner with the Wingfields, watching the tortured family groping toward, and failing to find, harmony — is just encouraged that audiences are up for the idea.
Purcell suspects that “immersive” becoming a buzzword is an indication that “theater artists are starting to interact with other aspects of society — economic issues, issues of diversity, a movement toward a more holistic kind of theater.”
The immersive trend, for him, is one facet in a larger kaleidoscope of questions that theater is asking itself: where and how to perform shows, how to find new audiences, how to engineer equitable ticket pricing, what kinds of stories get told and what kinds of actors get to tell them.
“Immersive theater is part of a larger question,” Purcell said. “What keeps theater relevant?”
And if that attracts new audiences who don’t usually go to traditional, sit-down-and-look-at-the-stage theater, so much the better: “That’s the sweet spot of theater — different kinds of audiences getting together.”